Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bible Sunday sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away

 

That's a pretty confident assertion – even for Jesus.

We can assume that he weighed his words carefully, that he knew that they would make a life-changing difference to his hearers there and then – and to all that heard them thereafter...but how could he be so sure that those words would survive?

I’m pretty sure that the carpenter from Nazareth did not forsee the printing press…that as he spoke he was not reflecting on the day when the Bible would be the world’s number one best-seller…but for all that, his words point to an important truth.

Jesus was – and is – the great communicator, the one who translates, if you like, the nature of a God beyond our understanding into a God close at hand, telling stories, asking questions…using our language to reveal his truth.

“My words will not pass away...” for they point to the eternal…to a reality beyond all words, all understanding.

 

But - supposing they did...tomorrow.

Supposing some cataclysmic event removed every single Bible, not just from this Cathedral but from every church and school, every home and library, ever single corner of the world.

What would we miss?

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,*

 

God’s truth has been revealed in the person of Christ…so do we really need the stories that preceded him?

 

How would you feel if they went missing?

I wonder if you'd notice – and if so, why…

 

I mean, it's extraordinary.

 

In this year of grace 2014, with all the scientific marvels of the past decades, with all the technological advances that have transformed our world, here we are still reading a book whose earliest texts were put together four or five centuries before Homer wrote the Odyssey...

And we read without a trace of irony – with such high seriousness that everyone falls silent as week by week in this wonderful building, we hear stories of times so utterly different and distant from our own that there seems almost no point of connection.

 

Except, of course, the people.

They are all too familiar.

Rulers who went off the rails and did dreadful things

Nations that fought, conquered or were conquered in their turn

Men and women in the grip of love and hate, fear and jealousy, family feuds and national disasters.

People just like us...

 

So – on one level, that might be sufficient reason for persevering with this ancient library.

We find ourselves in its pages – and learn fresh approaches to the here and now from the perspective of history.  The slogan “All human life is here” was not produced to sell the Bible – and there are all too many ways in which we can recognise recurring patterns of human behaviour to lament or to emulate.

 

But that's not really the point, is it.

 

Because, of course, that library of books that we call the Bible is the history of a very particular relationship, and a particular conversation….for it is an account of  the relationship of God with God's people.

Though Christians are not the only “people of the book” , we do have a particular identity as a faith community gathered around and formed by this collection of writings.

We allow these writings to have a unique place in our worship – and should surely allow them the same importance in our lives.

 

It’s true, of course, that when we say, as we did just a few moments ago “This is the word of the Lord” we may have quite different understandings of what that means...but we surely agree that God can speak to us through the pages of this book of books.

That's not always a comfortable experience – and indeed, nobody could claim that the Bible is always an enjoyable read.

It's tempting to gloss over the awkward parts – both those that tell of unspeakable cruelties and those that give us far more information that we ever needed about the dietary codes of a nomadic race. Part of the role of the lectionary, with its daily portion of Scripture, is to ensure that we engage with the hard stuff, like it or not…for even the worst behaviour of Old Testament kings, the angriest excursions of the psalmist aren’t really so different in essence from the messier contents of our hearts.

It can be tempting, though, to shy away from those bits that hit home just a little too hard...those words  that remind us that the word of God is indeed active as any two- edged sword...and that sometimes the guidance and truth we need to hear is a far cry from the easy consolation we would like.

 

Sometimes we abuse the Bible – using its words as weapons against our brothers and sisters in Christ, distorting the message of Scripture to judge or to condemn...

I’ve witnessed some really disturbing games of Bible tennis, with texts being hit to and fro, each protagonist determined to use them to prove their point, to have the last word.

Can we claim such exercises as “The word of the Lord?” …..

I really don't think so.

 

Because, you see, I'm convinced that God's word to us is love.

 

Love is the fulfilment of everything that God wants to say, the ultimate truth of God’s word.

That word of God, God’s word of love, is found above all in Jesus himself, who lived and taught and died a life of love, so that the love of God could become reality for everyone.

And in Jesus’ rising from death, God showed that love is the greatest power in the world.

That’s the message and the meaning.

 The written word leading us to the living Word – the One who is love incarnate

This is the beginning and end of the Scriptures: it is on God’s love that everything – EVERYTHING – depends.

 

So “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” because, you see, our God is one who longs to communicate, and uses words, ordinary fragile, changeable words, to make himself known to us.

Remember Terry Waite, sustained through long captivity by the words of Scripture he had learned decades before…words dwelling in him as an antidote to hatred and despair.

Remember Provost Howard, shaping our ministry here as two words slipped from heart to mind on that November morning

God spoke to them through words they had absorbed, perhaps almost without knowing.

God speaks to us, through those same words, which we are free to study, to explore, to ponder whenever we like.

Take those words seriously.

Each holds an infinity of meanings, and even the most familiar of texts has fresh treasures to offer if you spend time immersed in it, opening yourself to new possibilities.

There is so much to discover,  but the overarching meaning is, always, non negotiably, love. 

 

So, let’s approach Scripture expecting to be changed by the encounter, confident that the story of those men and women of long ago will become our story…and that, like them, we can be swept up in God's great love story, through which he woos humanity.

 

For surely every Sunday must be Bible Sunday...every day a Bible day.

 

 The Bible is precious, priceless, inspired.

It deserves our best attention for behind the words on the page is the living reality of the Word made flesh.

Let’s, then, join in with the story.

We will misunderstand and get things wrong – but that’s finefor errors are part of learning.  

The Bible needs us, if it is to have any existence beyond the sterility of the page.

We need the Bible, if we are to gain insights into the ways of God for it is a book that will lead us to God and help us to engage with God in bringing in His kingdom.

It is a gift, to be savoured and celebrated, for it comes laden with the love of God.

 

Thanks be to God! 
 
 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Lord hath been mindful of us….

At Evensong tonight the boys and gents of the Cathedral Choir sang Wesley’s “Ascribe unto the Lord”. You don’t hear it that often, probably because it’s a massive piece, - one of those which can sometimes leave you wondering, by the time it’s done, whether it is in fact still Sunday – and if it IS Sunday, whether we’ve reached next week or are in fact in the week after.
Despite this , I’m very fond of it  - because once, 28 years ago, I had one of those moments with God.

Motherhood, which brings me more joy than almost any other aspect of my life, did not come easily to me. There were many miscarriages on the way to my 3 beloved children – and the 1st of those, the most heart-breaking, marked the end of my first pregnancy. With the kind of painful irony that seems to have real teeth, the following day was Mothering Sunday and I was booked to sing Evensong at St John the Divine, Kennington . This was about a year into my brief voyage across the Tiber, and I was missing Anglican worship, the choral tradition and my friends at SJDK far too much to stay at home, tearful wreck though I was. So I turned up, only to find that we were singing this marathon anthem…which was new to me that day. We made our way through it with determination til we reached the final pages
“You are the blessed of the Lord, you, - you and your children

At the rehearsal this made me wobble rather, not surprisingly...but when it came to the service, there , in that church that I loved so much, I swear that God winked at me…and I knew there WOULD be children if I simply trusted and held on.
Tonight, my youngest was singing with the choral clerks – and as I looked at the Sutherland tapestry of Christ in Glory, I rather think that Jesus winked at me again. “Told you so…” he said.

And yes, I am blessed. HUGELY blessed. Thank you for the reminder.

Greater than our hearts - a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 19th October 2014 1John 3:16- 4:6

Today's 2nd lesson is a landscape dominated by 4 great standing-stones...monolithic concepts that fill the sky-line no matter where you are yourself.
Love – truth – action – condemnation....
Huge concepts to engage with...and taken together they make this part of John's letter a really tough read. After all, God throws down the gauntlet in the 1st verse of our reading..He has given us a powerful practical demonstration of his love, one that it is impossible for us to miss
In this we know what love is – that he laid down his life for us” and as if that wasn't enough, we're told that HIS way must be our way too...
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”
Really? Me? That's truly daunting
On my best days, when there seems to be love overflowing in every corner of the world, I still doubt my ability to love LIKE THAT.
Would I really place myself in the way of a bullet intended for one of my family?
And even if I managed that, what if the bullet was heading for a random stranger?
And if I can't manage that – well, standing here to preach is a colossal presumption.

Our writer makes it very clear indeed that God's focus is on truth and action, not word and speech.
We can SAY loving things as much as we want to, but if we don't supply hard evidence that they are real for us, then there's no chance that God's love has settled in our hearts.
When I struggle to practice what I preach, when I come home from Mass and kick the metaphorical cat, when for all my protestations of love for God and for his people I seem to live a rather different kind of life...Well, that's the point at which my heart sets to and does a very good job indeed of offering quite serious condemnation.
Call yourself a Christian! Who are you trying to kid? It's all about love – and you know that, deep down, you're woefully short of that sometimes...In fact, if you barely seem to know what it is.
Never mind trying to get on and show it, your best course of action would be to curl up in a distressed and distressing pool of guilt and misery, because obviously that's really going to help everybody, right?
Why not just wallow in your role as miserable sinner and leave it at that...
Your heart condemns you well and truly.
Guilty as charged.

But – we're not going to stop there. Our letter writer certainly doesn't. His stress on truth and action isn't designed to paralyse but to encourage. The thing is, you see, to stop worrying about whether either you or I can muster the sort of love that God shows to us – and to get on with DOING the next loving thing in front of our noses, never mind the feelings! To be honest, I'd guess that most of us are pretty unlikely to have to brave the bullets and lay down our lives for our friends – but we may well have to lay down a whole host of other things – personal preferences and prejudices, short cuts and easy ways out of genuine relationship – in order to more truly show authentic, truthful love and generosity of spirit.

Let's think about it in terms of our common life here, in a place where worship, welcome and reconciliation should be our constant touch-stones. It's fair to say that there's a long journey to travel if they are to so much part of us that they characterise every aspect of our dealings...but the message is the same.
It's a question of moving beyond the words to the deeds.
Of course we will need to spend time exploring together, trying to grasp what those words will actually involve, how they will impact each aspect of our common life and our shared identity.
We may need to reflect on things we thought we understood already. Welcome, for example, seems easy and obvious – all about the smiley face at the door, and good quality coffee served alongside friendship...but of course it's not quite as easy when you realise that it extends far beyond the way you smile at strangers, to the way you open your life to them.
And that's just a start.
So we will indeed need to ponder and discuss what these words really mean – but we can't actually own them until words turn to actions, and our values shine through our deeds.

The interesting thing is that, like love, they demand that we focus elsewhere. It's not about US at all!It's not about what Welcome, Worship and Reconciliation will bring to our Cathedral – but what our Cathedral might bring to the world by fully living out its calling as we focus on the God whom we worship, the stranger whom we welcome with such opennes that barriers dissolve and disappear in the perfect mutuality of reconciliation.

Does that seem an impossible ideal, na├»ve and unattainable? It's certainly not where I'm standing today – not yet – but I do think it's where I'm aiming.
And our reading helps me along the way. In fact, it's transformative.
Many years ago, while I was still a child, I read and re-read Rumer Godden's “In this House of Brede”, set in a community of Benedictine nuns. I loved it for many reasons – the Sussex landscape it presented was the countryside I knew and loved, the music that flowed in and out of its pages was the spiritual soundtrack to my own life – but I loved too the story of faith that had drawn the central character from life as a top Civil Servant to become an enclosed nun. I learned a lot, without realising that I was learning anything – but perhaps the most important legacy was some words from the Cloud of Unknowing which lodged in head and heart and have remained there ever since.
Not what thou art – nor what thou hast been- but what thou woulds't be beholdest God in his mercy”

In other words, if your longing is to love in deed and in truth, then let go of your fear of failure and do whatever act of love lies before you. Your heart may well condemn you- both by the evidence of imperfect love and dubious motivation that it presents when you take a closer look and by that disapproving inner voice that so often threatens to drown out the voice of God's loving compassion.
But – don't listen to it.
Our blessed assurance lies beyond ourselves...in God's faithfulness and knowledge of what we wouldst be – of all that we aspire to, no matter how often we fall short
Here is the our calling, expressed in a single verse
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us
But if your love is smaller, feebler, than you long for it to be – nevertheless all shall be well.
Don't focus on yourself. Look to God and find your reassurance there – for, though your heart condemns you God is greater than your heart.


All praise to Him, now and forever.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I wonder if you know the work of the cartoonist Simon Drew....For some years I had one of his drawings pinned above my desk. It showed a rather perplexed-looking terrier, surrounded by thinks bubbles “Now where did I put the car keys”
Will I be able to pay off my credit card”
Did I leave the gas on?”
Whatever can I do about global warming…”
Beneath was the caption
The tomb of the unknown worrier”

You see, I'm rather good at that kind of worrying myself – and as I listened to the news last night, there was no shortage of global concerns to give me pause. ISIS, Ebola, Cyclone HudHud and the recent success of UKIP...there's plenty to worry about before I even begin to think about finance (which always has the power to paralyse me with anxiety).
That's rather a shame, really, because Paul says that this should not be an option for me as a Christian.
Be careful for nothing” says Paul to the church in Phillippi…or, if you prefer it

Don’t stress”.


Such sensible advice, but so hard to follow, don't you think?
To be fair, Paul doesn’t simply forbid us to worry.
He gives us an alternative programme to follow, as he encourages us
rejoice in the Lord always, and by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to let your requests be made known to God.”
He's looking for hearts and minds transformed, it seems...and it all begins with joy.
"Rejoice!" Not just once, but again...
look to the things that give you joy – focus on all that is good, and remember that we have the all-time best reason to be cheerful. THE LORD IS AT HAND!
That doesn't mean we all have to turn into Pollyanna's, pretending that everything is just fine when we're surrounded by real and serious problems…Paul isn’t acting as a kind of spiritual cheer-leader, insisting on an upbeat response to any and every grief. He is writing to a church filled with doubt and fear, amidst a crooked generation in an aggressively evil environment. Life is a struggle, with in-fighting and persecution. There is no shortage of things to fret about, and yet Paul insists, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”
I don't know how the Philippians took that – I'm often frustrated that we don't get to hear the response to all those New Testament letters – but I suspect they may have snorted in derision at first, that they might not have been much better at living a joy-filled life than I am myself.

You see, the sad truth is, that often Christianity seems to be a religion for kill-joys...People imagine that we spend most of our time focussing on the things we can't do, and disapproving of those who do them anyway – and it's certainly true that opting to follow Jesus isn't a recipe for an easy life. Everything from our relationships to our shopping habits may need to change...It's hard work...and for those who focus on the external sources of happiness, it just doesn't make sense. But the thing is that joy exists independent of the environment and will persist through any and all circumstances – because it doesn't depend on them.
The secret to joy is not to look at the circumstances of your own life. Focus instead on Christ and his work in you. Now it begins to make sense.
Don’t worry…Be careful for nothing.
This does not mean “Be careLESS of everything” but rather do not be worn down by anxiety…
"Present your requests to God" Let God know specifically what troubles you – what your needs are –No matter what is going on, in all things PRAY!
This reading is often used at Rogation services, when we gather to ask God's blessing on the sowing of seeds...and that's the perfect illustration, really, since planting a seed is always and everywhere an act of faith. How can something so small and fragile carry within it all it needs for fruitful life? How can burying that tiny fragment in the ground lead to the growth of a whole new plant, just like its parent? Clearly with the planting of each and every seed, we find ourselves in the realm of miracle…and it's so as we plant the tiniest seeds of faithful prayer.

Yes, these ARE dark and difficult days. The world is messed up in ways we can only begin to imagine – and worry might seem the most rational response. But we have an alternative...
However ridiculous, however inadequate it may seem, we have the choice to carry on praying even when it seems to be a completely fruitless activity.
Just as planting a seed involves us in a process of patient waiting while nothing much happens, we have to believe that a similar process will see prayers answered, if we wait in hope.
And as we wait – there's good news, news of God's peace which "Transcends all understanding"...of a peace beyond human reason or logic,- the peace of knowing God's presence and protection.
So a seed of prayer sown, leads to the miracle of a mind transformed.
As the peace of God comes to occupy the place anxiety once held!

That's what happens when we pray in joyful hope.
We pray and God plants a seed within us, diverting our attention from those things which cause us pointless anxiety, which drain our energies and rob us of our sleep. Instead we can focus on
whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable...
Doesn't that sound better as a response to the 3 a.m. devils?

So here is Paul’s prescription – his four part antidote to anxiety.
Change your attitude - Rejoice! all shall be well, for God is in charge!
Do things differently - in everything – absolutely everything – give thanks and pray! Ask for what you need, and it will be given to you
Wait for your answer and instead of worry, you will experience the peace of God!
And while you wait, think of all the gifts and blessings that surround you.

That's so much better than immuring yourself in the tomb of the unknown worrier...so let's pray that through God's transforming power the small nugget of belief we bring to the table may flourish and grow, so that as the body of Christ in this place we may be full of that irrepressible joy of which Paul writes, as we live lives grounded in the peace that is beyond our reason, beyond all understanding.